Motor racing-Leclerc leads practice as Houthi attacks overshadow Saudi GP

Saudi Arabia Grand Prix
FILE PHOTO: Formula One F1 - Saudi Arabia Grand Prix - Jeddah Corniche Circuit, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia - March 25, 2022 Ferrari's Charles Leclerc during a press conference REUTERS/Ahmed Yosri

March 25, 2022

JEDDAH (Reuters) -Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc ended the opening day of practice leading from Red Bull’s world champion Max Verstappen as the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix schedule went ahead despite attacks by Yemen’s Houthis on a facility owned by Aramco near the track.

The Monegasque driver, who was also fastest in the opening session of practice, during which a huge plume of black smoke rose over the Red Sea city, lapped the 6.1km Jeddah Corniche track in one minute 30.074 seconds under the floodlights.

Verstappen was second, 0.140 seconds slower than Leclerc with Carlos Sainz, who completed a one-two for Ferrari at last week’s season-opener in Bahrain third.

Both Ferrari’s ended their session early after touching the wall.

Events on the track were overshadowed by the attacks on the Saudi energy facilities owned by state-run energy giant Aramco, a major Formula One sponsor.

Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthis said they launched the attacks and the Saudi-led coalition said Aramco’s petroleum products distribution station in Jeddah was hit, causing a fire in two tanks but no casualties.

The second practice session was delayed by 15 minutes after Formula One CEO Stefano Domenicali called the drivers and teams into a meeting. 

Organisers said the weekend, with final practice and qualifying on Saturday and the race on Sunday, would go ahead as planned with fans in attendance.

Formula One said it was closely monitoring the situation.

Once-dominant Mercedes, who have been caught out by F1’s radical rules overhaul, made progress in the second session.

Lewis Hamilton, ninth in the first session, ended the day fifth. New team mate George Russell, 15th in the opening hour, was sixth.  

The first session was briefly halted when a corner distance marker came loose.

McLaren’s Lando Norris clipped the board, showering debris across the track.

Friday’s opening hour of practice also allowed drivers to familiarise themselves with the changes to the Jeddah track, a challenging layout made up mainly of blind, high-speed sweeps and flat-out blasts along the city’s Red Sea waterfront.

Organisers have made changes to give drivers a better line of sight around the corners after safety concerns last year.

(Reporting by Abhishek Takle; editing by Clare Fallon and Ken Ferris)